Graphics of the German Expressionists

Sabarsky, Graphics of the German Expressionists

I’m looking to German Expressionism for how both the line and colors can fill up space, as opposed to only the “flow” of the line.

I happened to have the book, Graphics of the German Expressionists (1984), by Serge Sabarsky, on my book shelf. (I found this gem in a used book store.) The historical context (1910’s – 1930’s) from which this kind of work arose helps me to understand the intent and approach of the artists.

Sabarsky explains…

The confusion and disorientation of modern man at the turn of the century created a need for immediate and tangible meanings… This opened the way to the rediscovery of graphic techniques. In… their woodcuts, the German artists, especially the members of the Brücke, developed a style that used crudely simplified… forms…

… The printing of manifestos especially was almost exclusively done with carved woodblocks. These… were characterized by an immediacy that makes them… as modern today as they were six or seven decades ago. (pp 9-10)

Looking at the the works in 2019, I think “immediacy” refers to how pieces were intentionally made flat and simple in order to be emotionally accessible.

Much of the work is in black and white, and much of the potency I think is in the contrast between the two colors. Many of the works use large blocks of colors and thick bold lines — which could be referred to as forms or shapes, as opposed to lines that flow with their own “intent” to move in a certain direction.

The figures seem to stand their ground. Wood blocks, in particular, can be described as emblematic — something abstract but something you can recognize right away, and despite it being so simple, it is very emotional and evocative.

Some artsits used hashing, but I only focus on how broad strokes, IE those of a brush, fill up space and the interactions between positive and negative space.

Following two short essays that give some historical context, there are nine sections that each give a brief introduction to an individual artist before showcasing examples of their work.

Max Beckmann Otto Dix Lyonel Feininger Erick Heckel Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Otto Mueller Emil Nolde Max Hermann Pechstein Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

Finding My Line

Bear with me as I use this blog to talk through some problems, namely with being more abstract on a fundamental level. (It’s a technical post that asks a handful of questions and provides no answers… although it may help to know that these are problems you may encounter when transitioning from a Western approach to an Eastern approach.)

Gaa Wai 062119 Tree 1

I went to a local park last weekend and discovered a very interesting looking tree. I thought I could open up the idea of this tree by taking parts of it and deconstructing it, so that I would have a new way (or my own way) of showcasing some of its nuances. I couldn’t. In hindsight, I realize I had some obstacles to overcome.

1) I was using a new vehicle (a brush) for a familiar medium (ink).

2) My moves were bigger by virtue of my using a brush.

3) I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. a) “Deconstructing” was my way of zen drawing but I didn’t put two and two together — that I had to have that approach (the one for zen drawings) to produce the same kinds of results for previous zen drawings.* b) I was outdoors and I had never tried to draw outdoors before, while in that head space.

How did I respond?

1) I went home and instead of making the video I intended to make (about the tree), I made a video on materials. (Not very exciting and, honestly, very basic. But if you’re interested, you can find it here.)

2) I pulled out two books in Chinese (Wei Xin Yi  and Li Xue Ming) from my personal library, each of which focus on the art and style of a given Chinese artist, looking for ideas. 

3) I went to the park again, but instead of going to the tree, I sat down on a bench and reconsidered my approach.

Obviously, using a different tool will have an influence on one’s approach. The moves you make with a brush will of course be bigger than those with a pencil. But there it is. Because they are bigger moves, they will be more abstract and thus I will have to be more conscious of the process for making choices. This seems to take me out of the “zen” frame of mind I would go to while drawing with a pencil.

… And yet, the sketches of Hiroshige, for which Hiroshige used a brush, look very zen… as do the works in the two books I mentioned earlier.

Hmm… I think about what I’ve seen so far in this genre. Yes — there are a lot of big moves. One of the most basic elements is the depiction of a leaf or segment of a branch with one stroke of a brush. The body of the figure below, from Li Xue Ming, is composed of a few continuous, thick lines that remind me of Chinese calligraphy, as though, for this artist, the skills for calligraphy are the same for depicting how a figure is enrobed in fabric.

Very different than the painstaking line-work of Italian Renaissance drawings. And much more abstract.

Li Xue Ming from book Li Xue Ming

Eh… getting back to me. I am very inclined to make small moves and build (ever so slowly and organically) from basic elements.

This had presented its own problems: IE, small moves can lead me to follow a subject too closely so that I simply “copy” what I see. To address this “problem,” I would simply see this approach through to the end and be more extreme. What could this approach yield for me? I knew I wasn’t capable of “copying” it that well, like a camera, and when my eyes got lazy, I knew my brain would have to interpret for my hands what it saw but on an abstract level. This is when — if I am consciously thinking of style — I can choose what kind of interpretation I will make.

This approach has worked very well for me while using a pencil or ball point pen. The [new] problem now is that I’d taken for granted how the line of a pencil or pen is consistently fine and predictable. I’d even incorporated these features into how I think, visually, and conceive of a given subject on an abstract level.

In short, a line produced with a brush varies in width and texture and is not as predictable, and I have to learn to do more with fewer moves because each move is bigger and uses up more surface area. Sketches with fewer moves also look more elegant and efficient.

To be continued… 


* I use the term, zen drawing, loosely. I could just as well say contour drawing.



The Sketchbooks of Hiroshige

The Sketchbooks of Hiroshige (2001) by Daniel J Boorstin (foreward) and Sherman E Lee (introduction)

I recently discovered this at a used bookstore. It’s a reproduction of two sketchbooks by a Japanese artist by the name of Hiroshige, which are currently held in The Library of Congress.

There are two editions. One is perfect bound and the other, this one, opens out like an accordion, which is similar to how classic Japanese literature were bound. In the perfect bound edition, you don’t get to see the sketches all the way to the edge. While, after a brief forward and introduction, [this edition] immediately gets into the plates and you can open up each volume in its entirety. Each page flowing into the other page.

Flipping through the pages of any sketchbook, you get to see the way an artist thinks visually and not just the ideas as abstract ideas but something that has already taken form… and how he thinks in a specific medium. Moreover, you see how he made use of a specific size, color and type of surface, which can limit where the lines go, how big the gestures are and the effectiveness of a given color and medium. 

To quote Daniel Boorstin, in his foreward, “The economy of these pages, like the simplicity of the Japanese garden, reminds us of the Zen paradox of the redolence and fullness of empty space.”

Hiroshige is utilizing the negative space as a major feature, so it’s really easy to see and appreciate the simplicity of his gestures and strokes, which somehow depict a scene in a very vivid and meaningful way, whether it’s looking at a single, central subject or an entire scene and where where multiple figures stand in relation to each other.

In only a few strokes, you know these are two people here and two more here carrying a load of some kind together… and here are some shrubbery. Looking at the color of the sketchbook pages, I notice there is a choice not to give it a wash but to rather make use of it to suggest it’s a certain time of day, in which you’re catching a glimpse of the work they do in the early morning hours. The color of the pages help to set the tone of the entire sketchbook. 

Dessin puriste (1925)

This is another response to an individual work, a copy of which can be found in Krauss’ book, The Picasso Papers.

Before I get to this, though, let me offer some quick notes to the essay, “The Circulation of Signs.” Krauss brought up an interesting issue in the introductory essay, while discussing Picasso’s work in general: if the meaning expressed in a given work which is abstract is self-referential, the meaning can be without value. (Please see All signs lead to Picasso.) Because this is in the introductory essay, I thought she would spend the length of the book addressing its main concern. She does somewhat, and I’ve included what I found useful in my post, Violin (1912); however, she spends most of her time discussing how several different works refer to ongoing political concerns during the time that the works were created. (So the works refer to issues that lie beyond the work, and issues very specific to a time and place, and thus, they are not self-referential.)

I am a little disappointed. To address the issue in her introductory essay, I can again only offer my own opinion, and that is that if a given work has good form, it has something of value. OTOH, art is inherently a social medium; IE, it is made with an audience in mind. It doesn’t have to be political, but the more it comments/engages with issues that lie beyond the work, the more it engages with its audience on a level that is beyond form itself.

Okay, moving onto the work I am responding to. I thought it was by Picasso but it’s  actually by Amedee Ozenfant. It can be found in the section entitled Picasso-Pistache.

Krauss goes on at length about how Picasso was criticized for creating pastiches of works/styles which were created/used by his contemporaries. I have not finished the essay, so I can only say that thus far she offers two responses: one which is critical and one which seems to justify what Picasso did by saying that he took the style of a given artist and then did more.

Today, we seem to allow this but call it “appropriating” the style of another artist while “making it one’s own.”


Ozenfant’s Dessin puriste (1925) may seem to look like a pastiche of Picasso’s work in that it is a flat representation of the objects, and the contour of one object may share the same lines of the contour of another object. But Ozenfant does something that does not make me think of Picasso, and that is how the picture is scored horizontally and vertically by how the contours of certain objects run along what would be one of two grids, one which divides the picture into thirds and the other into quarters. This does not happen with all the lines, but it happens so often that it looks intentional. It creates some interesting visual rhythm which is not very obvious.

What it fails to do which Picasso does so well in his cubist work is create tension between the flatness of the work and the illusion of dimension. This is because there are no vanishing points. You can compare this to Landscape with Posters (1912), which has multiple vanishing points. It is only flat and thus less engaging.


I tried to do this by eye, but eventually I had to use a grid, because so much of what is effective of this drawing depends on how well certain lines match up with other lines.



When I was done with the pencil version, I simply added ink using a ball-point pen.


I only wanted to make sure I had smooth lines (so I compulsively went over the lines until they “flowed” well). However, looking at the finished version, I think the variation of thicknesses in the lines creates some illusion of depth and thus creates some tension between the illusion of depth and the flatness of the drawing.

In short, it doesn’t look as flat as the original, which I guess is neither better nor worse, as the effectiveness of the original was achieved, in part, by its flatness. Either way, it was interesting to see the drawing move in another direction by merely changing the quality of line. 


Landscape with Posters (1912) Part 2


This is continued from the previous post, Landscape with Posters (1912).

Seeing the finished work can be overwhelming, and I think that’s part of its appeal. You can get lost in it. So while making a copy, I was pleasantly surprised to see the picture open up to me. In order to find a starting point, my eyes followed the horizontal lines, and I noticed that they scored the picture regularly.

While drawing diagonal lines, I noticed two were set apart from each other but parallel, so they framed a part of the picture at an angle.


I then noticed other parts designated by lines that are parallel to each other, which intersect each other. These spaces are where you can focus your gaze; you can get lost in them.


The variety of angles or perspectives or vanishing points, or however you would like to describe the lines which create these spaces, create a kind of ebb and flow, while the visual rhythm of the horizontal lines unify the picture as a whole.

The process was very simple. I copied it by eye, first in pencil.


I then added ink.

I really liked the idea of applying ink to only one set of parallel lines; EG, all the horizontal lines. However, I wanted to see if I could do more. Interestingly, adding ink to all the lines seemed to be too much, so I considered using different colored inks, so that you could see the ebb and flow more easily. However, doing so took away from the unity of the original. I eventually settled on using a variety of thicknesses.

For the below, I simply went over the lines in pencil with a black ball point pen.


For the final version, the vertical lines were left only in ball point pen. The horizontal lines have black gel pen over the ball point pen. For the diagonal lines, I applied blue gel pen over the black ball point pen and then a black gel pen over the blue gel pen.


I then added shadows which mimicked the variety of tones in the black and white digital copy of the original offered in the book. This further added greater depth and contrast between the spaces.

Landscape with Posters (1912)

This is a post relating to the book, The Picasso Papers, by Rosalind E. Krauss. Please see my two previous posts: Violin (1912) and All signs lead to Picasso.


Here are some notes on Landscape with Posters (1912).


When looking at any scene, all the lines are at a variety of angles, but Picasso allows himself to draw some lines parallel which should not be parallel. This creates multiple vanishing points and more visual rhythm than what the original may have had.

Visual rhythm is always nice, but when each element being expressed rhythmically has meaning (IE, it signifies something), the meaning itself becomes manifold and the experience of viewing the work becomes more substantive. For example, the lines denoting a variety of ground levels is the idea of the ground expressed in avariety of contexts. It isn’t only the rhythm of lines but the rhythm of the earth or any other idea associated with the ground.

You also have the rhythm of doorways (notice there are two) and the rhythm of walls. And then you have the occasional “poster,”which breaks up what Picasso might’ve thought was monotonous and which gives a viewer a few places to focus one’s attention.

There are also some really nice moves: EG, the bottom of a wall receding beyond the opening of a door, which is made more interesting with the rectangle surrounding the door which depicts a building. It’s not stated in the picture, but seeing a door to a building and not just what would be an archway is associated with experiences of when you may have wondered about what’s inside a place. You don’t see what’s inside, and this invites you to wonder what could be.


Violin (1912)

Krauss, The Picasso PapersThe Picasso Papers, by Rosalind E. Krauss. Continued from All Signs Lead to Picasso.

In her first essay, “Circulation of Signs,”Krauss offers responses to individual works. So, likewise, I’ve decided to offer my own thoughts on Picasso’s Violin (1912), along with a couple of Krauss’ ideas which I found technically useful. 

Violin (1912) as a whole is an amalgam of surfaces, and yet you get a sense of the  “thingness” of the object, but in a way which makes us conscious of the elements which express themselves otherwise naturally and are often received somewhat subconsciously.

The three dimensional quality is expressed in only what is essential to express a three dimensional object, which is much less than what a photo of a violin expresses. There is no shared “horizon,” into which everything “vanishes.” There are only shadows and all parts of the violin, seen from different angles, can be seen all at once.

A violin is a complex object. The way it plays with the light is beautiful, and Picasso conveys this with the stark contrast of light and dark areas. Using newspaper print, he also conveys what Krauss calls “atmosphere.” She discusses how he makes use of positive and negative space, as an example of how the meaning of the signs used are internal and relative to each other. IE, the contour of one element is the contour of another and either can be signifier (of a violin or part of a violin) and background.


Only when finishing the drawing did I realize how important the use of collage is to this work. When I only used pencil, it fell flat.


I think there is so much going on in the newspaper that it stands out as a different surface. The image of individual letters lined across the columns, which create visual rhythm, are enough to make its audience see it (even as part of a digital image, which is then printed into a book and then photographed for this blog) as a different surface, and thus lends itself to the illusion of depth.


Maybe if I simply make the gray areas more busy. Here is the original side by side with either version.

I think the unevenness of the second version creates the illusion of more depth than the first version. It appears more airy and recedes further back into the picture than the spaces filled in with charcoal. The spaces filled in with pencil in the first version seem to share and compete with the spaces of charcoal, because they are too similar. When the surfaces are more varied, there is more complexity of depth overall.


All signs lead to Picasso.

Will I ever tire of Picasso? NEVER.

Krauss, The Picasso PapersI’ve started reading The Picasso Papers, by Rosalind E. Krauss. It was published in 1999, so I’m a little behind… but no worries. Picasso is often seen as the father of modern art, so an in-depth consideration of his work is an easy bridge to thinking about modern art in general.

N.B. The book resides somewhere between the academic world and the world everyone else lives in. 

Let me first unpack a few things: some context, primarily the aims of modern art and how they have led to the issues Krauss explores.

1) She says in passing that Modernist art aims to have “self-sustaining purity.” (p. 7) By “purity,” she means that we can appreciate the work by looking at the work itself.

But what is the value of “purity?” Context is convoluted. Art which expresses only the essential is refined the way sugar is refined — it’s more potent in its efficiency. Or this is what I can surmise from my own experiences with modern art.

“… if nature always ends, as they say, by resembling art, we need to stress that it resembles it badly.” (p. 4) Krauss quoting the critic, Jean Paulhan. 

One selects only what is essential — from a world of choices — to express a given idea. That is part of how it qualifies as art.

2) An attribute of Modernism is its reductionist logic. “… an artist’s duty is to find the essence of the medium in which he is working.” (p. 8)

Just as the representation of a cow can be reduced to a few select marks on a page, so too can the very logic to one’s approach and/or philosophy for appreciating art in general.

To understand what Krauss means by “essence of the medium,” you might ask yourself, What can language do? What can the novel do (which nothing else can do or which no other medium can do as well)?

With the advent of photography, what can painting do which a camera cannot do for us?

Modern artists have answered this by developing abstract art.

Issues Krauss explores:

Aesthetic modernism severs “the connection between a representation and its referent in reality, so that signs circulate through a field of abstract relationships.” (p. 6)

Using her understanding of Andre Gide’s novel, The Counterfeiters, to show the problem in practice, she observes that “the fraudulent is thus a corollary of the ’empty sign’… a ‘token language,’ signs circulating without a ‘convertible’ base in nature.” (pp. 10-11) She goes on to say that “meaning itself becomes a function of the system rather than of the world.” (p. 18)

What does this mean?

  1. Signs used in a modern work of art might have no meaning in themselves, and thus, the work as a whole has no meaning.
  2. It becomes difficult to tell if a Modern work of art has genuine aesthetic value.

Let me pause here to back track a little.

Krauss uses a term, which gave me pause,and that is “nonreferential sign” (p. 6), as in a sign which has no “convertible base” (p. 11); IE, it doesn’t refer to anything in the natural world.

1) Can a sign be truly “nonreferential?”

No. Even if you don’t see it right away, or you only see it for a moment, the connection between what one sees and what one responds to is necessary for the “sign” to be effective. Let’s take the art of Jackson Pollock for example. I see vitality, and this “vitality” has an effect on me. Vitality may be an abstract idea and the effect may be ephemeral, but I must think “vitality” before I make sense of what I see.

Or Yes. You don’t have to make sense of what you see for the work to have an effect on you. In fact, that is what Jackson Pollock wanted to make possible with his work.

Or No…? Can you respond to something without first acknowledging it in some way, and if one acknowledges it, isn’t this a way of seeing it as a recognizable object or a “sign?”

2) I believe great or “fine” art has a social element. It is a product of one’s living, and it is meaningful to other people. How can a work of art be meaningful to other people? It can comment on our humanity in some way, and/or it can have good form.

Now, if the elements do not refer back to anything in the natural world, can it comment on our humanity? If not, can good form be enough to qualify it as great or “fine” art?

To be continued…

Picasso, Gauguin and Seth

As I savor my time with Picasso, I find myself digressing a little to think about how he allows for thick lines to carry the expressiveness of some of his earlier work. Ex, Harlequin and His Companion or The Two Saltimbanques.

He refines this later on, as he becomes more abstract, but even in his Blue Period I can see he’s already experimenting with it, as he waffles between realism and abstraction.

It reminded me of how Gauguin liked to use thick lines in his own paintings. He is associated with Post-Impressionism, which, according to Nigel Ritchie’s Art, moves away from the realism of how things appear and toward symbolism as a way to express the internal.  (360, 372) Interestingly, it had a lasting influence in the graphic and decorative arts. Ex, Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters. (361)

In Picasso: The Early Years, it says that Picasso signed one of his drawings, Paul Picasso, to express his admiration for Gauguin. (39) It’s easy to see how the use of line in Post-Impressionism had an influence on Picasso’s work.


I was moved by a small drawing of Casegemas (a close friend of Picasso’s who had committed suicide) that went along with his obituary. It’s a simple drawing and yet it carries such pathos. It’s not just the expression on his face but also the heaviness of the medium used and the heaviness of its execution. (33)

Below is my own attempt at drawing Casegemas.

Adding more shadow to the eyes and shading in more of his shoulder would add to the heaviness of my own drawing. Nonetheless, it was good practice in drawing something by eye. I think I’ve spoiled myself with relying on carbon copies and have let my sense for proportions waver.


Moving forward into modern times, I found myself flipping through all the books I have by Seth, a cartoonist who also uses thick lines to great effect. When I read his graphic novella, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, for the first time, I would simply have described it as “atmospheric” or used the phrase “old-time ambience,” while the second time around, I can see that this “ambience” comes from something specific at play within the drawing.¹

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABelow is from his Vernacular Drawings, and drawn in the same style as in his novella. The nostalgia is from a sense of pride emanating from the figure and the ease with which he smokes his cigarette despite his not-so-glamorous circumstances. (58)

In many of his drawings, Seth seems to be looking for dignity in old places or the kind of strength you might see in people who are comfortable in one’s own shoes, regardless of what one’s circumstances may be.

Let me compare this for a moment to the pieces I considered in my post, First Impressions of Picasso. Both artists create tension between subject and context, but while there’s a bit of irony in both, that of Seth’s work isn’t as explicit; it’s softer and instead of being altogether sad, the work holds its figures up as honorable and proud.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a drawing from his work for Aimee Mann’s album, Lost in Space. There is dignity in her posture and simple but elegant dress, which is in contrast to her quiet acts of rebellion (sitting on the railing and looking in rather than joining those inside). Is there also a quiet earnestness? It’s difficult to tell, as we cannot see the expression on her face.

There’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple drawing.

It took me three sittings (3-4 hours each). In day one I drew the central figure, with a disproportionate amount of time spent on the feet. My sense of proportion and perspective are kind of wonky, and I had to be careful to make them just as delicate as in the original. I also added a charcoal outline to the figure and tried to rush through what surrounds the figure, so that day two was redoing all those lines and realizing I got the window wrong but had no choice to keep it as it was because I didn’t think there was any way of undoing the charcoal.

I was wrong. You can erase charcoal. Also, while you can’t completely erase it if it has been pressed into the surface, you can hide it, as it is a lot lighter than charcoal which you do not try to erase. It’s almost as malleable as pencil, even though the pigment is much more rich and intense.

In day three, I finished applying a charcoal outline to the rest of the picture, with the window as it was, and then spent a bit of time smudging or erasing and reapplying charcoal. Areas which serve only as a background were left blurred, while the central figure and the areas of the house which are supposed to be bathed in moonlight were given fresh hard lines, so that the “lighted” areas could be in greater contrast with its surroundings).

If it was up to me, I would not have made any hard lines, but doing so, in following with the original, I realized that the difference between hard lines and blurred areas gave the drawing another dimension. It was fun deciding how this aspect of the picture would play out. It made me think of the choices you must make when using charcoal, as well as the choices made by Expressionist artists.


1 I wanted to draw something from his novella, but all of its drawings rely heavily on its color scheme (subtle variations of blue, black, grey and white) to carry the mood, and I didn’t have the right kinds of blue. I was tempted to color in my drawing of the one from Lost in Space, but realized that without the right kinds of blue, it would look sloppy, and distract from the overall effect.

It’s too bad, because It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken is quite beautiful.